Now we venture into uncharted waters. I have been thinking about Kachasu related issues of late. Kachasu (or lituka) is a traditional Zambian brew that is drunk in many rural parts of Zambia and in poor urban townships. My reflections have been prompted by a combination of two recent wonderful articles in the Times of Zambia and a recent download of a classic Zambian song by the Five Revolutions called 'Kachasu', which brought floods of memories of my early childhood in Nchelenge and Mwansabombwe.
Kachasu's alcoholic content can vary significantly, depending on the strength of the brew. A research on the composition and safety of kachasu conducted in 2001 by by University of Zambia (UNZA) academics, found that Kachasu contained about 20 to 30% ethanol - pure alcohol. They discovered that the beer contains no major contaminants but added that basic hygiene was crucial. The researchers also noted that if flavoured with fruits, it could be made less potent. Other studies have found the strength can be as high as 70%. The limit to Kachasu's strength appears to depend on the strength of people who drink it.
In a recent piece Kachasu at the heart of George Township, Trevor Lubala explains the art of making Kachasu :
''Kachasu brewing is a tedious process. It starts with buying half germinated maize, which is later dried and then pounded before winnowing it using a winnowing basket to remove the wastes. The mixture of fine half-germinated maize and sugar are then immersed in cold water and left for some days for fermentation to take place. During the cold season, fermentation is longer than in dry season scientifically because the enzymes are more active in higher temperatures. After fermentation has taken place, water is drained from the mixture; that water is the most important liquor every kachasu brewer targets. Then a fire is prepared with firewood to heat up the ‘drained water’ in the drum. The moment the water reaches its boiling point, alcoholic vapour escapes from the drum and passes through a pipe attached to it. This pipe runs into a tin as the vapour changes its state back into water, which is then recollected and packed in small containers. The water being recollected is not mere liquid, but kachasu itself.''
Simply put, Kachasu is a low skill labour intensive product. In a country with massive unemployment and poor education standards, especially among women, it fits the bill of would be rural or urban township entrepreneurs. As Ms Mbewe explain to Trevor, 'I have nothing else to survive on, I look after my three children out of this business'. On the demand side, the low price for the product seems to generate ulimited demand, as typified by the response from Trevor's "easterner" : “My brother, let no man cheat you. This is a beer that once you discover, you can never wish to stop. It’s so nice, I have even stopped taking bottled beers because one, I don’t get drunk on them any more, and two I spend a lot of money on them. But not for this beer,” .
This is when it becomes a little complicated because selling Kachasu is of course illegal in many certain Zambian towns with Kachasu bye-laws in place. There is no national law preventing home based consumption, though government has previously campaigned hard for avoidance. Indeed the Five Revolutions' Kachasu song was largely driven by the government propaganda to sway people away from drinking it. During One Party state it was common for the government to get bands to do songs that accorded with the government position at the time. That said, the main point is that Kachasu remains legal to drink, what is forbidden is the commercialisation of Kachasu and that appears to depend on local enforcement of bye-laws.
What are we to make of all this? We can drink ourselves to death or financial ruin or marital breakdown as long as it is at home (parallels to the smoking ban clearly don't fit, since smoking remains a commercial activity, though its public consumption is somewhat restricted). After careful reflection on this issue, I have come to the conclusion that the bye laws sole focus on preventing commercialisation of Kachasu is misguided for a number of reasons.
The first reason is that the social negatives (or 'market failures') have not been proven. On 'efficiency grounds' alone, government intervention is only warranted if drinking Kachasus is someway imposes a wider cost on society that is not borne by the drinker (an 'external' cost). What could these costs be? Two come immediately to mind:
- Kachasu may cause health related issues, with wider repercussions for society. For example, it might lead to lost output through causing death or illness, which might even put more pressure on public services (on the flip side, death might reduce long term dependency on the state). As i have noted above, the UNZA research found that there was no significant contaminants in Kachasu, and crucially no adult has yet died from taking Kachasu directly. Any health issues appear linked to hygiene and those probably go beyond the Kachasu industry. This is crucial because in the past, there has been some unfounded allegations that some kachasu brewers add battery acid or fertiliser to give the drink its bite. We find these allegations not just with Kachasu but with other local brews like Chibuku. But even if such problems existed, that does not necessarily mean that government must ban Kachasu. We first need to understand the scale of the problem, assuming such problems exist, specifically what the social cost on society is that is not borne by the drinker (this would require measuring the cost quantitatively, with some precision). Then we need to provide a positive rationale for tackling the problem. The government really has many other 'market failures' besides Kachasu which they could equally address, but for lack of time or effort or lobbying they don't. We need a positive reason why the Kachasu issue is more important than others (beyond being politically more feasible), since we can't tackle everything (a positive argument could be based on the need to expanding freedoms - more on this later, if time and space allows). Finally, we need a policy instrument that fully addresses the scale of the problem and fulfills the positive rationale without difficulties. For example, we might reasonably argue that even if Kachasu is a problem, a ban may be inappropriate because if health related issues are the failure, we simply need to make sure the Kachasu drinkers pay for the cost in some way. But even before that we face question on why other drinks like Scottish gin or Chibuku aren't treated as failures of the market - an answer might be that they are taxed! If so, why not then simply formalise Kachasu and tax it? Without going into too much deeper discussion, it becomes immediatelty clear that its a complicated issue.
- Kachasu may cause civil disobedience, crime and family breakdown. On the surface this seems the more straightforward to accept. My old neighbour in Nchelenge was a serious Kachasu drinker. Nearly always you would hear him from afar late in the night making noise. But for every noise Kachasu drinker theres a quiet one! I do not think that Kachasu drinkers are any noisier or lead to more family break down than other types of alcoholics! Just ask European football fans who after drinking tonnes of bottled beers suddenly turn into serious football hooligans. In any case even if Kachasu has a deeper psychological and physiological effect that generate propensity towards civil disobedience and family breakdown, one is still left with the inevitable question of whether other interventions would be better rather than hurting the private and social benefits it might bring. The key point here of course is that as well as trying to resolve the "market failures" of civil disobedience and so forth, we also need to recognise that sometimes the other danger is "government failure". Many are the troubles that well intentioned policies bring.
'Kantolomba has the highest number of TB, STDs, and HIV cases in Ndola district. This is due to the fact that the township acts as a manufacturer of Kachasu, the illicit beer. A lot of men and women, including youth idle around taverns and sink their lips into cups of chibuku too''.
This view was also recently articulated by the nation's grandmother Mama Betty Kaunda, going as far as to call for a full national ban on Kachasu because it was supposedly destroying people’s lives:
“When people drink Kachasu, especially in rural areas, they become completely unproductive. Government should do something about this situation so that discipline can be restored in our country" .
The truth of course is that there's no evidence that Kachasu causes poverty. All we know is that the poor and the most traditional of Zambians like Kachasu or go together (correlate). Proving that something causes another thing is actually quite difficult. But even if it were the cause of poverty, as I have explained above, it would not matter as long those negative costs are known and are fully reflected in the prices people pay for Kachasu.
The watch phrase of course is "economic efficiency grounds". There might of course be other reasons on "equity or fairness grounds", why it would matter that Kachasu causes poverty (assuming it does indeed cause poverty). If say Kachasu resulted in some form of spatial inequality i.e. it lead to poor areas getting pooerer due to Kachasu drinking and richer areas getting richer due to Kachasu avoidance. In so far as society may prefer a more equitable society, and inequality may lead to other "unpriced" negative effects in the long term (i.e. beyond the direct ones we have discussed), the government might want to intervene to reverse these inequalities.
The key here of course is for government to demonstrate that Kachasu leads to poverty and then to wider gaps between urban areas ('urban inequality) amd between regions (regional inequality). As I have said, this is of course a tall order. For one thing, establishing causality is an extremely daunting task. The closest we come to doing that is through random controlled trials (RCT), but even those rely on plenty of assumptions (e.g. excludes general equilibrium effects). In a Kachasu RCT, we would randomly assign people to two different groups and treat one group with a lot of Kachasu and see whether the treated group is any poorer overtime, all things being equal. All of this is tricky of course and in any case no one has ever done the Kachasu RCT. My guess is that the individual drive for Kachasu is driven by their taste buds, availability of alternatives beers and of course their level of income. I suspect Kachasu is actually a good one demands less of as they have more income. So you could even argue that if we really want people to avoid Kachasu just put more money in their pockets! But I have no empirical basis for this, and some articles have shown that people of all walks of life like Kachasu. (see Potifer Tembo's Illicit Kachasu beer, has it got a positive side?).
The other problem I have with the current bye-laws is that they appear to limit the eonomic freedoms of the poor, possibly in favour of greater freedoms for the rich. As we've established, the labour intensive nature of the brew lends itself well to the low skills of the poor. By preventing the poor from engaging in full commercialisation, it alters the incentives in favour of bottled beer drunk mostly by the rich. If economic freedom for the poor, is a measure of their development (in Sen sort of way), then any thing that restricts their choice clearly impacts negatively on them (whether this is bad from society's perspective depends on whether this is a zero sum game i.e. a win for the rich sees equal losses for the poor - that may not always be true in practice). At the end of the day the poor will always spend money on alcohol, the question is which type of alcohol and in what proportion. Unless there's a clear and compelling reason for a full ban, a partial anti-commercial ban must be viewed as discriminatory against the Kachasu industry in favour of the bottled industry, and against the poor in favour of the rich (who also have an array of drinking choices).
But its not just the issue of dicrimination, there's also the wider point that the opportunity cost of the current Kachasu bye-laws for Zambia appears to be significant. Kachasu brewing can be turned into a viable industry that is properly regulated and generates tax for government (money that could be used to handle any side effects, if any). That this industry has been prevented from emerging is there unfortunate. If we accept the analysis presented above, it is quite clear that government through the bye-laws has blacklisted of a good beer product which has the potential to be exported, earning the country much needed foreign exchange. Many have noted that it is actually sad that the government has allowed a Malawi- made spirit called "Number One" that is just as strong as kachasu being imported into Zambia. The 'Number One' spirit is brewed by local people in Malawi just like Zambian villagers who are being funded by their government in co-operatives, this beer is then brought to Zambia. See Potifer Tembo's piece reference above for on thse missed opportunities.
A final point is that common sense suggests that society, and crucially politicians, do not believe Kachasu is harmful. This local brew is drunk at many traditional ceremonies from the Mutomboko to the Kuomboka to the Ila festivals. Nearly all of these festivals are attended by politicians including the President. But its actually much worse than that. A recent Post Editorial noted that Zambian politicians often use beer (including Kachasu) to woo voters. While that particular Editorial rightly raises concerns of the negative effects of alcohol, the general call is for a principled approach to the problem and need for better regulation, rather than the current approach for politicians of applying double standards.
Of course formalising the Kachasu industry may carry some costs. Those costs should not be ignored and as we have argued the correct response is to reflect as much as we can in Kachasu prices. But whether you support formalisation or not the challenge for government is to carefully weigh these trades-offs and put a case to the people on why the Kachasu industry should remain informal or indeed why the ban should be extended to prevent consumption at home. Crucially government needs to also evaluate the opportunity cost of the current bye-laws. My current inclination is that the pros of lifting bye-laws and formalising the industry outweigh the costs. I would be interested to hear from others on this issues, especially on my intepretation of the current legal framework.